- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — President Bush gave NASCAR’s top drivers an executive order yesterday.

“Gentlemen, start your engines.”

The sport’s top drivers did that and more, giving 180,000 fans packed into the grandstands around the Daytona 500 speedway an exciting race that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won after taking the lead with just 18 laps to go.

Earnhardt’s father, who was killed in a last-lap crash in 2001, “was over in the passenger side with me,” the winner said during a jubilant celebration in Victory Lane. “I’m sure he was having a blast.”

Mr. Bush, another man following in his father’s footsteps, was clearly having a blast as well.

Courting the roughly 75 million racing fans, which include this year’s version of “soccer moms” — “NASCAR dads” — the president drew vigorous cheers from fans packed around the 2.5-mile track.

Shunning his habit of leaving sporting events shortly after they start, the president stayed about 30 minutes longer than scheduled before departing for Tampa.

Mr. Bush got to take a slow half-lap around the flat shoulder of the track, whose banks rise so steeply that a stopped car would probably flip end-over-end down to the bottom.

About 30 minutes before the green flag, his 18-vehicle motorcade pulled into Pit Row, where he and first lady Laura Bush emerged from a Cadillac sport utility vehicle to mingle with fans and shake hands with drivers.

Mr. Bush even peered into car No. 16, sponsored by the National Guard. If the car reminded him of the tempest swirling around his own service in the Texas Air National Guard, he didn’t show it.

The president, who had a tough week in Washington that included days of intense media scrutiny over his Guard service 30 years ago, later said in an NBC interview: “It’s great to get out of Washington, believe me.”

Asked whether he’d like to take a spin in one of the cars, which often top 200 mph around the track, Mr. Bush said “I’d like to, but I’m afraid the [Secret Service] agents wouldn’t let me.”

“I flew fighters in the Guard and I like speed, and it would have been fun to drive up these banks,” he said. “I can’t imagine taking a bank at 210 miles an hour.”

During his stay — about half of the 200 laps — the president saw a dozen lead changes and an 11-car pileup that knocked defending champion Michael Waltrip out of the race.

Earnhardt’s victory, in just his fifth run at stock-car racing’s premier event, came on the sixth anniversary of the only Daytona 500 won by his father. The elder Earnhardt, one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, lost at Daytona 19 times before grabbing his only victory there in 1998.

Even runner-up Tony Stewart acknowledged how fitting was the four-car-length victory for the younger Earnhardt, 29.

“It’s nice to see him get his victory, too,” Stewart said. “I think his father is proud today. I wanted to win the race. Trust me, if I could have held him off, I would have.”

But, he said, “there was no holding that kid back. Today was his day.”

It was Mr. Bush’s day also, as he received a much warmer reception than Gov. Bill Clinton did when he visited a NASCAR race as a presidential candidate in September 1992, when questions about his lack of Vietnam-era military service were dogging Mr. Clinton.

At the Southern 500 race in Darlington, S.C., Mr. Clinton was booed and heckled by fans, many shouting, “Draft dodger.” But Mr. Bush drew hearty cheers and applause, and made a short speech that lasted less than 60 seconds.

Later, in a separate radio interview with Motor Racing Network, Mr. Bush said: “This is more than an event; it’s a way of life for a lot of people, and you can feel excitement when you’re here.”

“If you’ve never been to a Daytona 500, it’s hard for me to describe what it’s like to be down here with the drivers and to see the huge crowd and to feel the excitement for one of America’s great sporting spectacles,” he said.

Mr. Bush maximized his exposure to racing fans during the visit. His plane, Air Force One, swooped low over the track, waggling a wing, and came to a stop on an airport runway less than a half-mile from the track, within full view of a giant grandstand.

He then adjourned to a tower above Pit Row, where he watched the race and conducted several interviews.

The festivities started well before the president arrived. With hundreds of entertainers on the huge infield, a man with a jet pack strapped to his back sailed into the speedway, followed, a short time later, by a bald eagle that landed on its trainer’s arm. Meanwhile, fireworks burst in the sky as LeAnn Rimes sang “R-O-C-K in the USA.”

Youngsters also unfurled a massive U.S. flag, at least 100 feet long, as dancers dressed in giant stars pranced around. The first couple also bumped into actor Ben Affleck, who drove the pace car, and NASCAR legend Richard Petty, whose father was a good friend of Mr. Bush’s father.

Festivities also included a flyover by a B-2 stealth bomber and two fighter jets.

The day before the race, Petty said if someone wanted to find a Democrat at the NASCAR race, “you’d be hard-pressed.”

NASCAR dads are almost exclusively Republican, which prompted Republican pollster Whit Ayers to say that “Democrats trolling for votes among NASCAR dads is like Republicans trolling for votes at a NOW convention,” referring to the National Organization for Women.

Jim Whitley of Michigan, who has come to the race each of the last five years, agreed.

“I don’t know anyone who’s a big fan of NASCAR who has voted for a Democrat — ever,” he said.

Some of his friends, he said, popped in to see famous drivers who held court for a short time at a Republican National Committee tent set up to register voters.

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